Archaeological science consists of the application of methods from the natural and life sciences and engineering to the study of the human past. It covers the study of human and animal remains, plant remains, archaeological materials, and soils and sediments. It explores research questions pertaining to human-environment interactions, subsistence practices, palaeoenvironmental conditions, craftsmanship, provenance determination as a proxy for movement and mobility, and many others. It also includes physical dating methods, as well as remote sensing and geophysical prospection methods that locate and identify archaeological remains. As such, it offers a wide range of independent information and testable data complementing other lines of enquiry.
Us, so far
At the A.G. Leventis Chair in Archaeological Sciences, we concentrate on Archaeological Materials Science, Environmental Archaeology, and Human Osteoarchaeology. We have a suite of well-equipped dedicated archaeological science laboratories, and collaborate with specialized laboratories elsewhere in Cyprus, the EMME region, and beyond to complement our own expertise.
Since its inception in September 2018, one of the flagship activities of the A. G. Leventis Chair has been the organisation of the International Congress for Archaeological Sciences in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, ICAS-EMME. ICAS-EMME 2 took place in November 2019, followed by ICAS-EMME 3 in March 2022, right at the end of the Covid Pandemic. Designed to reflect the entire spectrum of research at STARC, it offers a unique platform for researchers based in or working in the EMME region to share experiences, ideas and the most recent research.
Another cornerstone to support archaeological sciences in the EMME region is our scheme for guest researchers who want to benefit from our equipment and expertise. Starting in the Summer of 2023, we have an open call for expressions of interest and will accept guest researchers according to our capacity and relevant expertise.
More on Archaeological Science
Archaeological science also referred to as Archaeometry or Science-Based Archaeology, is the study of the human past using methods and concepts from the natural sciences and engineering. The distinction between archaeology and archaeological science is fluid; few people would call the use of stratigraphic recording in archaeology archaeological science, even though the concept of stratigraphy is borrowed from the Earth sciences. Thus, only the more distinct examples of the application of natural sciences and engineering approaches are commonly understood to comprise archaeological science. The defining parameter setting archaeological science applications apart from modern science is that their main purpose is to study the lives of past people and their interaction with the environment. Thus, archaeological science covers the study of human and animal remains, plants, archaeological materials and sediments, and explores diverse research questions pertaining to human-environment interactions, subsistence practices, palaeoenvironmental conditions, craftsmanship, provenance determination as a proxy for movement and mobility, and many others. Important contributions also include the study of the design and use of structures, engines and machines in the wider sense, such as kilns and furnaces, large-scale irrigation systems, quarries and mines, monumental or defensive architecture, and shipbuilding, to mention just a few. This often includes an element of reverse engineering, for instance when reconstructing the design, construction and operation of a metallurgical furnace from the surviving waste products and remains. Archaeological science traditionally includes also quantitative physical approaches to what has survived from the past; this includes physical dating methods such as 14C dating, but also remote sensing and geophysical prospection methods that locate and identify archaeological remains. The latter can range from the single coin found by a metal detectorist up to the landscape-level mapping of whole cities and agricultural installations using airborne and satellite-based detection of magnetic or other human-influenced signals in the environment.
Closely related to archaeological science, one can distinguish two different focus areas, which still maintain a high degree of common ground with it. The recently emerging field of ‘heritage science’ is more concerned with the documentation of the current state of monuments and artefacts and their use in the present, and seems historically more related to archaeometry with its focus on inorganic materials and instrumental method development and optimisation. In contrast, ‘conservation science’ is focusing on the study of the mechanisms that lead to deterioration over time, and how to slow down or even reverse these processes. For both, there is significant overlap to archaeological science in the stricter sense of focusing on the human experience in the past, since both heritage and conservation science necessarily include the study of manufacturing and past use of monuments and artefacts.
Archaeological science can appear epistemologically relatively strong in its belief in ‘objective’ and ‘indisputable’ data; however, the step from measured and documented data to the archaeologically relevant interpretation is still subject to the same plethora of different theoretical frameworks and prior beliefs that characterize all archaeological research. A most significant contribution of archaeological science lies in the massive broadening and deepening of the type of data that is available relating to the past human experience, by providing independent lines of evidence far beyond the classical sources of archaeological enquiry. It is therefore not surprising that archaeological science is particularly strong in prehistoric research frameworks and outside monumental settings. However, research where science-based evidence is providing complementary information to historical or iconographic sources and well-established archaeological prior knowledge is a rapidly growing arena where archaeological science can arguably make its greatest contributions still to come.
Archaeological science contributes well beyond the characterization of physical remains of the past. Complementing the insights gained from written and iconographic sources into the thinking of past people, archaeological science is also a major source of information regarding the reconstruction of intangible cultural heritage. Archaeobotany and zooarchaeology, for instance, contribute fundamentally to our understanding of social practices, rituals and festive events; archaeological materials science informs us about past knowledge and practices concerning the natural environment, and about traditional craftsmanship – thus addressing three of the five main manifestations of intangible cultural heritage listed in the UNESCO Convention for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (https://ich.unesco.org/en/convention). A common example of how archaeological science contributes to this is the use of the chaîne opératoire framework to reconstruct social and practical processes that are not in detail covered by other sources. Importantly, archaeological science allows us to cover these aspects for the vast majority of people and activities that are not covered by the very limited focus of textual and iconographic sources.